A/Synchronicity: Text and Context in Tareen’s Defending Muhammad in Modernity

Noah Salomon on SherAli Tareen

I spent the first year-and-a-half of the Covid-19 pandemic in Beirut on an extended sabbatical.  As a way of staying connected to the projects that I had come to Lebanon to study, I devoted myself to reading a series of theological texts over Zoom with several advanced students from local Shi‘i seminaries.  We read a wide range of texts, from literature in mantaq (logic), to ‘ilm al-rijal (“the science of men,” or hadith studies), to classical and contemporary works in usul al-fiqh (the science of jurisprudence), to political treatises from prominent modern intellectuals, to contemporary media.   

Towards the end of my time in Beirut, around when I was asked to write this essay, my tutors and I began to focus on what is called in the seminary curriculum al-fiqh al-istidlali, demonstrative jurisprudence. These texts concern the actual application of Islamic law to particular problems—in distinction to the theoretical science of legal interpretation—centering on key debates pertinent to modern Muslim life and justifying ways forward through reasoned argument.  There was an irony, perhaps, in turning to those sorts of texts at that particular moment, since so much of life was unpracticeable then, sequestered as we still were in our disparate pods. But such study at least let us reason vicariously, looking longingly out into a world that once was, and might be again, from behind our windows.

Those last two months in Beirut, my tutors and I slowly and painstakingly worked our way through the massive two volume set by the contemporary Lebanese scholar Shaykh Husayn al-Khishin entitled fiqh al-‘alaqa ma‘ al-akhar al-madhhabi: dirasa fi fatawi al-qati‘ya (Jurisprudential Arguments Regarding the Relationship with those who Adhere to Other Legal Schools within Islam: Studies in Fatwas that Advocate for Estrangement).  I’ve long had an interest in discourses on the management of religious difference within Islam, those that existed for centuries long before fashionable theories of Muslim pluralism arrived on the scene, with a particular fascination for what the mechanisms are by which Muslim intellectuals both draw boundaries around the Muslim community and open it up to opinions other than their own.

How Muslim intellectuals theorize the nature of difference within Islam, found in literature on adab al-ikhtilaf (the manners of differing), the al-milal wa-l-nihal (heresiology) corpus, as well as more everyday encounters with those from communities other than one’s own, shows something important about the category of the political often not captured in studies of “Islamic politics” that preoccupy themselves with questions of states and their governance. What such texts show is the very real existence of a political community that is not coterminous (and perhaps even is asynchronous, in the way it bridges diverse pasts and present) with the modern nation-state, the political community par excellence in the contemporary world. Shaykh al-Khishin’s book seeks to maintain a delicate balance, between, on the one hand, insisting on the primacy of the ithna‘ashri Shi‘i tradition that he represents, while on the other, seeking to draw the circle around Islam wide enough that differences of opinion do not thereby constitute unbelief, and thus expulsion from the umma.  It is, in the end, a book that offers a deeply capacious vision of Islam.Of course, such an argument is a deeply political act. But, I’d argue, it is one that is directed not primarily at the Lebanon in which it was developed, despite its legendary “sectarian divisions,” but rather that gestures towards political communities both smaller (Muslims in Lebanon) and larger (Muslims across the world) than it.

Of course, such an argument is a deeply political act. But, I’d argue, it is one that is directed not primarily at the Lebanon in which it was developed, despite its legendary “sectarian divisions,” but rather that gestures towards political communities both smaller (Muslims in Lebanon) and larger (Muslims across the world) than it.

SherAli Tareen is one of the most perceptive readers I know, a skill on display in Defending Muhammad in Modernity as much as in the well-known podcast he hosts for New Books in Islamic Studies. Were Tareen to have been on our Zoom sessions reading al-Khishin’s volume with us (and, oh, how I wish he were!), he might call the book a work in “intra Muslim traditions of moral argument,” focused, like the texts he studies in Defending Muhammad in Modernity, on constituting “the boundaries of Islam as a discursive tradition.” Indeed, al-Khishin’s book is not merely itself an argument—with other Shi‘i jurists (those theorists of “estrangement” al-Khishin cites in the title), with other “sects,” and, at least implicitly, with liberal pluralist theories of engagement—but it is as well an argument about arguments. That is to say, Shaykh al-Khishin’s book is, at its heart, about the nature of disagreement in Islam, what are the limits of the Muslim community, and what are places where the circle of Islam has been limited, but in fact shouldn’t be.  It strikes me on reading the stunningly erudite and widely relevant volume that  Defending Muhammad in Modernity truly is, that the 19th and early 20th century theorists from the subcontinent that Tareen is reading are doing somewhat of the same thing: arguing, for sure, but also arguing about how we should (or can) argue.

To defend Muhammad in modernityrequires a certain sort of argumentative logic, one that Tareen describes as a kind of “synchronicity” between theology and politics (“it is the synchronicity, not the causality, of the theological and the political that I have tried to capture.”). I find this way of discussing political theology, what Tareen elsewhere calls “the cross-pollination of political and theological imaginaries”—symbolized in the term synchronicity, but expressed throughout his analysis—to be extremely productive. With this framing, Tareen avoids the neo-Schmittian sense of politics as translated theology, as well as the materialist reading of theology as translated politics, to suggest a “both-and,” a mutual borrowing of grammars and conceptual logics to discuss broader umbrella topics (sovereignty, egalitarianism/democracy, social order) that impact them both. This to me is a singular contribution of Tareen’s book that should give it a place on the shelf of anyone interested in questions of political theology, no matter the tradition and time period: it’s that unique of a philosophical contribution.

Politics and theology are so deeply entangled in Tareen’s analysis as to be inseparable, not simply in the sense that the two realms are deeply indebted to one another, as is usually assumed, but in that they each pose and answer one another’s questions. Case in point, when discussing Shah Muhammad Isma‘il, Tareen writes: “his argument for the absoluteness of divine sovereignty was intimately bound to a scathing repudiation of monarchical politics and forms of life. Moreover, it was precisely by drawing a radical contrast between divine and worldly sovereignty that he sought to establish the supremacy and exclusivity of the former.” Thus the “binding” of the political and the theological here is inescapable: they both participate in claims to sovereignty, one’s lack is another’s gain, and vice versa, making absolute tawhid impossible under a political order that itself claims to be above the law.  Moreover, beyond questions of governance alone, Tareen tells us that “a political theology of radical sovereignty required a moral economy of simplicity that jettisoned monarchal modes of being ( my emphasis)”: i.e. that a given political position requires a certain mode of ethical practice in addition to a theory of the state, a way of life. For Isma‘il, monarchy is just as much a theological impossibility as a political injustice and a moral error, and Tareen rightly refuses the chicken-and-the-egg game of telling us which comes first. These domains are, in this very tangible sense, synchronic.   

And yet, I am left wondering at the end of this all—and this “wondering” may in fact emerge precisely due to the thoroughness and tightness of Tareen’s historical analysis—to what other sorts of social systems were Tareen’s interlocutors responding when they staged the theological debates in question, that is, in addition to the rise of the colonial state and the waning of the monarchical regime that preoccupies macro-histories?  Were, on the one hand, other sorts of synchronicities in play (between theology and confessional community, for example, or, since Tareen himself takes us to a genre element of these debates [153ff], between demonstrative rhetoric and emerging literary cultures, perhaps) that might flesh out the stakes of the debates taking place beyond the transition from monarchy to colonial power and nation-state? And what sorts of asynchronicities were being pointed to as well here, gestures to other sorts of political community that both predate the colonial state (and maybe even the monarchy) and that may come after them, i.e. that are definitively out of time with anything called contemporary political critique such as that which Isma‘il waged against the monarchy? (Shahzad Bashir’s recent magisterial A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures has been extremely generative as I continue to think about the writing of Islamic history in these ways.)

These sorts of questions were pertinent to me as well when I was reading through the jurisprudential texts I mention above. The texts  surely are marked by the immediate political culture in which they exist, but they also seem to have nodes branching out to other sorts of politics, publics, aesthetics, and epistemes, which they are creatively imagining and which seem to exist at sometimes at perpendicular purpose to that of the national political developments in which we so often read them.  That is to say, Shaykh al-Khishin’s fiqh book is a Lebanese book, for sure, marked by the particular place of Shi‘is in the national order, but there is little indication in the book that he sees it as such, and, with this, I am cautious not to limit myself to this particular synchronicity of al-Khishin’s ostensible place and time.

What would it look like to pose Tareen’s interlocutors as equally node-d in multiple directions and, in examining additionally the ways their arguments are asynchronous with the “hinge moment” between the monarchal and colonial state, as imagining political community (and more?) through their theology in other registers? Were we to pause at the contexts outside the macro-political developments of these figures’ times, what else might we learn about the reasons their theologies looked the way they did? 

It is through refusing common dichotomous frames for the study of modern Islam (conservative/liberal, legal/mystical, native/colonial), that Defending Muhammad in fact offers the reader an opening to answer such questions, just one of the many reasons that it is such a valuable volume with which to think. One example that comes to mind is when, rather than simply accepting or rejecting the common “protestantization of Islam,” thesis, Tareen helpfully distinguishes between institutional/technological interventions of colonial power and its epistemic contributions (160 ff). Here he argues that Isma‘il is buoyed by the former while not beholden to the latter, making him both in and out of step with colonial intervention at one and the same moment.  Yet it is not only theory, but method, that makes Tareen’s volume so uniquely pertinent to thinking modern Islam and its interactions with politics “out of time.” Early on, Tareen writes, “My focus is not on Muslim intellectual mediations on the state, statecraft, and governance, things that are conveniently associated with politics…I wish instead to look at the conceptions of politics and ideal polities that underlie intra-Muslim debates on the character of divine sovereignty, especially in relation to the figure of the Prophet and the everyday life of the community.” So, “defending Muhammad” (here I mean the action, though also the book!) turns out to be far more than a response to macro-politics, rather it is, for all of the characters to which Tareen introduces us, a commitment to maintaining, molding and reforming the force of tradition in unstable times (or, as he puts it, that “bring[ ] into view alternative logics of life and critique…[ones that] provincializ[e] and unsettl[e] the conceptual hegemony of the secular ).”  

Such interventions, of course, will always have synchronous elements with the contemporary age in which they are posed, both in terms of the idiom in which they are spoken and, more substantively, in terms of the world they seek to reform, and Tareen’s book helps us to see them in refreshingly new ways. And yet, “defending Muhammad” is also, by definition, a recognition of friction, and with that, a need to think critically about the worlds our interlocutors may imagine (al-umma, al-firqa al-najiya, al-ghayb), not just those in which they empirically live.  We get a sense of this, surely, in Tareen’s moving analysis of Shah Muhammad Isma’il’s Persian volume Mansab-i imamat in Chapter 4, which is certainly far more about political horizons than empirical presents (his “salvational politics” is described as, “less the desire for the territory of a defined state and more the promise of securing and keeping alive public markers of Muslim distinction…).”  Indeed, it is through insisting that we look to uncommon places to find the political, and thus through paying careful attention to the philosophical and theological worlds in which his subjects exist, that SherAli Tareen has written that rare sort of book: one that shreds apart those limited frames in which so many have been working and offers a clear line of vision to reimagine the study of Islam in novel and unexplored ways.      

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Noah Salomon is the Irfan and Noreen Galaria Research Chair and Associate Professor in Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of  For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State (Princeton University Press, 2016).